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Editorial: Democrats' special election idea is intriguing, but Cox makes right call

Published November 29, 2013 9:34 am

Cox makes a reasonable choice
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

If you read Utah state law the way the state's Democratic Party reads it, Republican John Swallow not only shouldn't have been the attorney general, not only won't be the attorney general after Dec. 3, he never really was the attorney general.

Could it really be that easy?

Having an opportunity to go back in time and right a grievous wrong is a tempting fantasy that is a staple of romantic and science fiction. Stepping into a legal time machine and wiping away the whole sorry experience of Swallow's besmirchment of his high office certainly has its charms.

But then our newly minted lieutenant governor, Spencer Cox, had to go and bring everybody crashing back to reality.

Cox's office, acting on a complaint from a good government group, looked into allegations that Swallow's campaign disclosure forms omitted a lot of important information about his business dealings and sources of income. Because making such information public is the whole point of campaign disclosure laws — especially in a state with no limits on donations — the penalty for doing what Swallow was accused of doing is to nullify the results of an election where, to use non-legal language, the cheater won.

The report from the special counsel Cox hired came down hard on Swallow, finding a series of serious omissions that were "planned and deliberate."

By law, the next step would be for Cox to go to court and ask to have Swallow's election thrown out. But Swallow, facing not only those charges but an array of other ethics probes, said last week that he would step down as of Dec. 3.

So, Cox said on Thanksgiving Eve, Swallow's election was effectively voided, without the need for any further filings, trials, appeals or $3 million special elections. It will now be up to Gov. Gary Herbert to appoint, from the same party as the prior official, a replacement through the next regular election, the one in November 2014.

Cox said that is what would have happened if Swallow had been removed by a judge. He said state law doesn't provide for the statewide special election Democrats want. One that minority Democrats might have had a small chance at winning by running against the fresh, sour memory of Swallow.

State Sen. John Valentine has a good idea. Herbert should choose a caretaker A.G., a top attorney who won't run, or seek campaign donations, in 2014. That was seconded as a second choice by Democratic Chairman Jim Dabakis.

Still, it is nice to imagine that the penalty for cheating in an election would be the one that the Democrats argue for. A special election would mean not only that the offending office-holder would be ejected, but also that the ousted official's party would have no claim on holding the office, as it does under the normal vacancy-filling process.

A party with that much to lose might do a better job of leaning on all their candidates to follow the law.